America is caught in a “revolutionary spiral”. An oligarchy composed of a small number of corporate and government rulers may be in control, but they face opposition from Rednecks clutching at guns and God, working-class peasants of colour resistant to polygender empowerment doctrines and vaccine mandates, and the fact that roughly half of the US population has so far refused to submit to their rule.
These groups can’t influence policies at Amazon and the Pentagon, or other undemocratic bodies at America’s commanding heights. But locally they still have the power to refuse orders from the managerial janissaries who carry out the oligarchy’s bidding.
Pretensions of democracy aside, this is the real political landscape in the US, argued the American scholar of statecraft Angelo Codevilla. The oligarchy demands complete submission, the locals refuse, each party grants itself greater licence in what is permitted to defeat the other and the country spirals toward revolutionary violence. Codevilla, who last month died aged 78 near his vineyards in California, termed it a “cold civil war”.
For Codevilla, America’s founding tradition of republican self-government has been replaced by a ruling class of both Democrats and Republicans that is steeped in progressive ideology and hides its power in the operations of a vast administrative Leviathan. These views, as well as Codevilla’s affiliation with the Claremont Institute, considered the intellectual home of Trumpism, earned him a place in what one critic recently called “The Anti-American Right”.
According to America’s liberal intelligentsia, the open collaboration between corporations and state organs monopolised by the Democratic Party is unimportant compared to the fascist threat coming from “anti-American” conservatives. They believe that fear of demographic and cultural change has marginalised these anti-American jingoists, and led to their embrace of strongmen like Donald Trump who promise to restore their honour.
But that critique, when applied to Codevilla, reduces an historical and structural analysis of power to mere reactionary resentment. It also misinterprets and seriously underplays the radicalism of his ideas. Far from being radicalised by the election of a black president in Barack Obama, or a white restorer in Trump, Codevilla was radicalised by seeing the inner workings of the US government in the 1970s.
It is Codevilla’s background as a classicist, not a culture warrior, that best explains his harsh criticisms of the “War on Terror” policies of a Republican president, George W. Bush. His counsel to Americans who fear the rise of an oligarchic ruling class was not to storm the Capitol or elect a Caesar, but to get out and start something new. He saw an answer to the revolutionary spiral not in violence but federalism achieved through exodus. “Were the deplorables to struggle for the partisan power to oppress the others, they would guarantee dysfunction at best, war at worst,” he wrote in March this year. “That is why it makes most sense for them to assert their own freedom.”
Codevilla was born in 1943 in Voghera, a Northern Italian town near Milan. His father died before his birth. In 1955, he moved to America with his mother, arriving in New Jersey. After a stint in the Foreign Service he made his formal introduction to the American power elite in 1977, when he joined the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 1978, he helped draft the original foreign intelligence surveillance court law that, after 9/11, provided the pretence of legal authority — in the notorious FISA warrants — for carte blanche spying by the U.S. intelligence agencies. Finished with government work by the mid-1980s, he went on to take a number of university teaching positions and pursued a prolific writing career, over which he published 14 books and countless articles and essays, mostly for conservative publications.
When I had the chance to interview Codevilla in 2017, his generosity left an impression, as did his voice. For someone who came to America as an early adolescent, he had no discernible accent save a highly articulated diction and crisp, mid-Atlantic consonants. It was the voice of someone obviously learned, slightly mischievous, direct and lacking pretension.
It was the same voice in which he wrote, and reflected something of Codevilla’s character and unique background. He was a government insider who internalised the vision of America’s founders and an unsparing critic of the intelligence agencies who failed to make the country safer while hijacking its politics. You could disagree with his conclusions, as many did when he defended first the Tea Party and later the political movement around Donald Trump. But it was clear he was a man who lived partly outside his own time, translating Machiavelli into English and consulting Thucydides to diagnose the causes and effects of a growing administrative state.
Codevilla was best known for his writing on the American ruling class. Indeed, the idea that America is no longer ruled by a collection of individuals selected on their merits — and its popularity on the American Right — is largely Codevilla’s legacy. His 2010 essay on the subject for The American Spectator became a sensation after the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was moved to read aloud from it to his more than 15 million listeners. The essay became a book and elevated Codevilla’s reputation from respected authority on military and intelligence matters to a general Right-wing eminence of the American political scene.
Codevilla interpreted what has often been described as “polarisation” as a conflict between two distinct classes, each with competing visions of America. There is a “court” or “ruling” class, made up of highly educated urbanites whose group identity was forged in the American Progressive movement founded over a century ago, and a “country class” of those excluded from the court, who preserve the older assumptions of America’s founders.
The US has always had an upper class. But for most of American history, it was regional and varied. Because these people came from different places with their own local customs and made money in different ways, they were “not predictably of one mind on any given matter”. The internal tensions and disputes that naturally arose among them served as a check on their consolidation of power.
But now those regional elites have been replaced by a monolith. “Today’s ruling class,” Codevilla wrote, “was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits”. From Washington to Silicon Valley, progressive elites share a “social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints”. While the test for entry into this class is moral and aesthetic, it exercises power through offices of the administrative state, whose authority rests on secrecy.
Codevilla’s most original and striking contribution was to argue that secrecy, rather than expertise, is the foundation of ruling class power. As a strategy of rule, it provides the connective tissue between the ruling class’s domestic social engineering projects and the foreign wars it fights without clear goals or prospect of victory. As Codevilla wrote in his 2014 book, To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations:
“The bipartisan ruling class that grew in the Cold War, who imagined themselves and who managed to be regarded as entitled by expertise to conduct America’s business of war and peace, protected its status against a public from which it continued to diverge by translating the commonsense business of war and peace into a private, pseudo-technical language impenetrable to the uninitiated.”
As used by American spy agencies, “secrecy” can mean hiding information or obtaining it surreptitiously. But it might equally refer to the deployment of academic and scientific obscurantism to justify unpopular policies such as the forced masking of school children or the imposition of racial mysticism in school curricula and corporate boardrooms. The logic of such policies is never straightforwardly presented to the public, where it can be refuted on its own terms, because the logic of this or that policy is beside the point. In the end, the secular utopianism of early twentieth century progressive ideology combined with a secrecy-powered security state built to win the cold war and produced a strange offspring: our new America.
Socialised into the belief that they alone have the skill and moral sensitivity required to govern, America’s elites regard their countrymen not as fellow citizens to be reasoned with but as subjects to be ruled, no different in principle from the Afghans and Iraqis designated for liberation.
For Codevilla, such an outcome was always implicit in the premises of the War on Terror. Shortly after the attacks on September 11, at a time when many of his fellow conservatives regarded deference to the national security state as synonymous with patriotism, he offered this counsel in an essay for the Claremont Review of Books:
“Common sense says that victory means living without worry that some foreigners might kill us on behalf of their causes, but also without having to bow to domestic bureaucrats and cops, especially useless ones. It means not changing the tradition by which the government of the United States treats citizens as its masters rather than as potential enemies.”
No one in power took his advice, of course. Arguing that “some foreigners” might want to kill us, and that victory meant stopping this from happening rather than converting them to our way of life, could be easily written off as xenophobic and antiquated. For the next 15 years, the Bush and Obama administrations appealed to the nobility of Islam and dignity of Muslims as US wars killed hundreds of thousands of actual Muslims while achieving no lasting peace for Americans.
Codevilla was not always right in his five decades of writing about America’s wars and political struggles at home, but he was often uncommonly wise and never lacking in common sense. He understood that while some people live above their means, the members of the American ruling class live above their mistakes.
No senior US military official faced any serious consequences over the war in Vietnam. Five decades later, the same is true of Afghanistan. The generals who oversaw the US defeat and lied to the public about the progress of the war have moved on to jobs in the White House and defence industry. President Biden, to his credit, manoeuvred around the machinations of the security establishment to finally end the war. But he did so in a shambolic way that was careless with allies and pushed America’s strategic adversaries into closer cooperation.
What’s more, Biden shows no interest at all in dismantling the massive and immensely powerful war on terror security apparatus that, left intact, will always find new enemies to justify its existence. In fact, part of Biden’s motivation to get out of Afghanistan was to rely more on “over-the-horizon” capabilities — meaning jets, missiles and drone attacks — to fight our enemies abroad so that he could refocus the surveillance and policing power of the national security state on political enemies at home.
The plan, outlined in June, deems white supremacist and anti-government militia groups the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the US out of all “domestic terrorist” ideologies. To combat this, the National Security Council strategy calls for increased government spying powers combined with efforts at reeducation. It is “the first document,” writes the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “to directly tie US counterterrorism efforts to broader social issues such as systemic racism, police reform and gun control”.
All of this is as Codevilla predicted. Many have criticised US military policy in Afghanistan and the opaque and divisive racial theories being imposed in American schools. Codevilla recognised that they are structurally indivisible, two sides of an American ruling-class ideology that defines itself in opposition to the values and preferences of most American citizens.
This ideology generates endless cycles of failure because it reflects not particular policies but the gross inadequacies of those who have a monopoly on institutional power. It “guarantees,” as Codevilla wrote in 2014, “unending conflict with all nations and strife among ourselves”.